New Mexico got final approval this week to build a commercial spaceport 40 miles from my house. I dreamed as a child about someday going into space, so this project makes me a little giddy.
For many boys of my generation, dinosaurs, G.I. Joe, baseball or the first Nintendo game system was the big thing.
Not me. I was interested in some of those things, but my real passion was anything to do with outer space. I watched the stars. I read about the solar system. I watched Star Wars, and played with space-related LEGOs. I read the Martian Chronicles and other science fiction. I waited for cold, clear nights to take my telescope outside and hunt for some far-off object.
So, I have to admit, I’m a little giddy about the fact that New Mexico is about to begin construction on the first purpose-built commercial spaceport in the world only 40 miles from my house.
Spaceport America was officially licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration this week, meaning vertical and horizontal launches to places beyond the boundaries of our planet from soon-to-be-built launch pads and runways near my home in Las Cruces are a go.
There’s one final hurdle before the spaceport will be built. The state must ink a formal lease agreement with planned anchor tenant Virgin Galactic before the end of the year. If that doesn’t happen, tens of millions of dollars in funding from the state and Doña Ana County for the $198 million facility can’t be spent.
The agreement is expected to be signed in the coming days. State officials and Virgin didn’t come this far for nothing.
Virgin has spent more than $200 million developing SpaceShipTwo, which it plans to use to ferry paying customers into space from the New Mexico desert. UP Aerospace, which was recently featured in Fortune Small Business magazine, has already made a couple of launches of smaller rockets from a temporary launch facility at the spaceport. The company flies payloads including scientific experiments and loved one’s ashes into space for paying customers. Lockheed Martin has already conducted largely secret test flights from the spaceport.
Space commercialization is here
The commercialization of space is here. Some community somewhere in America is going to succeed in attracting the fledgling industry, and that industry, as it grows and matures, will transform that community. The state wants Las Cruces and the surrounding area in southern New Mexico to be that place, and has spent a great deal of money to try to make it happen.
There are competitors in Oklahoma, Florida and elsewhere, but, assuming the Virgin lease is signed, New Mexico’s spaceport will be poised to take the lead in America’s commercial space industry because of its well-funded anchor tenant.
There have been many questions about how the spaceport is being funded and, as a journalist, I’m concerned about a lot of it. Some of the funding was slipped by the state Legislature in the wee hours of the morning by the governor’s administration, which is shady. And, in years in which the state had a massive budget surplus because of huge oil and gas revenues, I cringe at the fact that the Legislature decided that more than a quarter of the funding had to come from tax increases in local counties. Some of the communities whose tax money is helping build the spaceport are among the poorest in the nation.
If the spaceport is successful, those communities will benefit from the ensuing economic development. But the state had plenty of money at the time it approved this project. It could have taken the full risk on its shoulders, and many believe it should have done that. I can see their point.
Regardless, the funding is in place and, pending the signing of the lease, construction of the spaceport should begin in a couple of months. As a journalist, I’m excited to be writing about such a project. As someone who cares about my community, I’m excited about the economic and educational opportunities it will create in Las Cruces and southern New Mexico if it succeeds.
And as someone who grew up dreaming about someday going into space, I’m excited about the future possibility of being able to see launches from the spaceport just like I can now see rockets from White Sands Missile Range shooting into the sky some mornings.
Maybe it will be a Virgin Galactic spacecraft taking mostly rich people into space. Maybe it will be the next-generation spacecraft used by the government to take supplies and astronauts to the International Space Station. Maybe someday it will be a vehicle headed to the moon, or Mars, or beyond.
The state’s spaceport project might succeed, and it might fail. Either way, I’m glad that, if the state’s going to attempt to build it, it’s happening in my back yard.